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Blaming and Targeting Refugees in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks

Blaming and Targeting Refugees in the Wake of Terrorist Attacks

Photo credit: Tony Webster

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Savun, B. & Gineste, C. (2019). From protection to persecution: Threat environment and refugee scapegoating.Journal of Peace Research, 56(1), 88-102.

Talking Points  

  • Prevalent governmental violence against refugees is 47% more likely in the wake of a terrorist attack, and it is probable that this violence is a form of scapegoating against refugee communities rather than a direct means to greater security.
  • Refugees provide “easy” targets for government repression in the wake of terrorist attacks because they usually lack political power, and citizens of the host country will be unlikely to “punish leaders for targeting refugees” due to xenophobic attitudes that often accompany insecurity.
  • Democracies are more likely to see this correspondence between terrorist attacks and a rise in governmental violence against refugees.


Unable to count on the protection of their countries of origin, refugees must depend on the goodwill of the citizens and governments of other countries who take them in, bound by the terms of the UN Refugee Convention to not turn them away and to protect them. Instead, refugees are often subjected to violence in these host countries. Nevertheless, most scholarly and public attention has centered on the negative security implications of refugee flows, the assumption being that refugees contribute to the prevalence of violence in their host countries. This study focuses instead on the question of when host countries are likely to engage in violence against the refugees within their borders. The central argument is that such violence is more likely in the wake of a terrorist attack, most probably as a form of scapegoating against refugee communities rather than as a direct means to greater security.

Governments typically respond to serious threats, especially terrorist attacks, with repression, as they are under pressure to show that they are minimizing harm and preventing future attacks. Accordingly, citizens tend to tolerate some repression—but too much repression can come at a cost for governments. Indiscriminate repression might alienate citizens or, in some cases, even lead to support for terrorism among targeted communities. Governments face a dilemma, then, in determining their response to terrorism. The authors argue that strategically targeting refugee communities can “ease this dilemma” for two reasons. First, refugees do not usually have the right to vote, so they lack electoral power that could make their repression politically risky for leaders. And, second, citizens are unlikely to “punish leaders for targeting refugees after terrorist attacks” due to xenophobic attitudes that tend to emerge in response to insecurity. Leaders can even capitalize on these attitudes, reinforcing strong in-group/out-group distinctions where citizens blame foreigners for terrorism—making the targeting of refugees that much less risky for governments.

Political leaders may choose to target refugees for repression after terrorist attacks for either greater security or political gain. Security would be the motivation if leaders actually believed that refugee communities were involved in terrorism and that repression would mitigate further terrorism. By contrast, political gain would be the motivation if leaders were merely using refugees as scapegoats and repression as a way to “do something” to appease voters after a terrorist attack—a sort of “security theater”(1) to make citizens feel safer even if they aren’t actually made safer.

To explore their research question about when countries are more likely to violently repress refugees within their borders, the authors examine a data set of all countries from 1996 to 2015, which includes whether they experienced an act of transnational terrorism and how widespread government violence against refugees was in a given year. Government violence includes nine forms of violence against refugees: “killing, sexual violence, torture, beating, shooting, violent repatriation, extortion, destruction or confiscation of property, and harassment.” The authors’ analysis provides support for their main hypothesis that host countries are more likely to violently repress refugees after terrorist attacks, as there is a statistically significant relationship between transnational terrorism happening in a country-year and the prevalence of government violence against refugees, even when the authors control for other pertinent factors. In plain terms, “one additional terrorist attack increases the risk of prevalent refugee victimization…by 47%.”

To discern whether governments are motivated more by security or by political gain in their decisions to repress refugees, the authors examine whether violence against refugees is more prevalent in cases where there is reported involvement of refugees in acts of terrorism or recruitment of refugees to terrorist groups, either of which would suggest a security motivation for government repression. Their analysis does not, however, indicate a statistically significant increase in the prevalence of violence against refugees in such cases, leading them to cautiously find support for political motivations and the operation of a scapegoating mechanism against refugees.

Finally, the authors also find support for their second hypothesis that the more democratic a country is, the more likely it is to increase its violent repression of refugees after terrorist attacks. The explanation provided is, first, that in general democracies repress refugee populations less than authoritarian regimes do, and, second, that in the wake of terrorist attacks, leaders in democracies “have stronger incentives to respond to voters’ demands and preferences…quickly,” leading them to be more likely to change their behavior towards refugees within the country’s borders. On the other hand, authoritarian leaders’ behavior towards refugees doesn’t change much, as they are more likely to repress them any time, in the presence or absence of terrorist attacks.

Informing Practice 

This study sheds light on the anti-immigrant/anti-refugee sentiment that has been on the rise recently in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, especially in the wake of ISIS-orchestrated or -inspired attacks. Although these attacks are carried out by a few individuals (who, if of European descent, would have been singled out as disturbed and individually culpable), it has been all too easy for citizens in affected countries to become suspicious of all people coming from the Middle East or North Africa, collectively blaming entire nationalities or religious faiths. Politicians like Trump, Salvini, or Farage have capitalized on these attitudes, while also fanning the flames of xenophobia and promoting discriminatory immigration policies that collectively punish innocent families escaping war or persecution. Although discriminatory immigration policies may sometimes stop short of the sort of anti-refugee violence addressed in this article, this research makes evident how such violence stems from the same underlying attitudes and scapegoating practices and therefore is not unlikely in such contexts. In fact, incidents reported during recent ICE raids to apprehend and deport undocumented immigrants in the United States connected to counterterrorism only through the far-fetched claims of the Trump administration that terrorists are streaming through the southern border—do fit this study’s characterization of governmental violence: when one man in Minnesota locked his car doors to keep out ICE agents surrounding his car, the agents broke the windows and pulled him out of the car to detain him. In the wake of terrorist attacks in France, the government instated a state of emergency, enabling itto put “hundreds of predominantly Muslim men…under a form of house arrest, withoutbringing charges against them.” Though it is not clear how many of these men were French citizens and how many were immigrants or refugees, it is clear that religious and ethnic profiling and scapegoating is at work in such cases.

This research helps us become more critical citizens, better able to question whether these anti-refugee/immigrant (or, more broadly, anti-Muslim) policies are motivated by an actual concern for greater security or by a desire on the part of politicians to gain political points with an electorate eager to blame someone for terrorism or other security threats. We can be more attentive to the fact that political leaders often engage in “security theater,” placating the public with “decisive”—but ultimately ineffectual—counterterrorism policies. Citizens in these countries can call out these politicians and publicly examine the actual security implications of their counterterrorism policies, while at the same time reminding governments of their obligations to refugees under the 1951 Refugee Convention. More broadly, we can take this attentiveness and critique a step further and recognize the ways in which not just domestic repression but war itself is an act of “security theater”: a symbolic response that reassures the public that a government is “doing something” in response to a terrorist attack, for instance, but which can have minimal or even counterproductive effects on a populace’s security.

Continued Reading

Jacobs, E. (2017, February 4). Trump’s immigrant ban has echoes of France’s counter-terror measures. PRI. stories/2017-0204/trump-s-immigrant- ban-has-echoes-france-s-counterterror- measures

United Nations. (2016, October 24). Perception that refugees are more prone to radicalization wrong and dangerous — UN rights expert. UN News. en/story/2016/10/543592-perception- refugees-are-more-prone-radicalization- wrong-and-dangerous-un-rights#. WCzyY7IrJpg

Woodward, C. (2019, January 7). AP fact check: Trump’s mythical terrorist tide from Mexico. AP News. 38c988d70b

Fernandez, M. & Lester, K. (2019, July 15). ‘Nobody opened the door’: Neighbors rally during an ICE raid in Houston. The New York Times. ton.html?searchResultPosition=1

Lee, M. Y. H. (2017, March 6). Trump’s claim that ‘more than 300’ refugees are subjects of counterterrorism investigations. The Washington Post. 

Tayler, L. (2019, May 2). US counterterrorism under the UN spotlight. Just Security. 

Keywords: refugees, counterterrorism, repression, state violence, scapegoating

The following analysis appears in the Special Issue on Refugees & Migrants in Volume 4 of the Peace Science Digest. 

1. Schneier, B. (2006). Beyond fear: Thinking sensibly about security in an uncertain world. New York: Springer Science & Business Media.

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